Massive Health Builds an App for Healthy Eating; Think Foodspotting Meets FitnessKeeper

11/2/11Follow @wroush

Do phones, food, photos, and fitness mix? Massive Health is hoping they do. The San Francisco mobile health startup, which debuted last spring with $2.25 million in seed funding from Felicis Ventures, Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz, Charles River Ventures, and Mohr Davidow Ventures, has come out with its first consumer app. It’s called The Eatery, and it’s designed to get iPhone owners to think more carefully about how they stuff their faces.

Introduced yesterday, The Eatery invites you to use your iPhone’s camera to take a picture of your meal—before you eat it, ideally—and then to rate it from “Fat” to “Fit” on an 11-star scale. The app will track your entries, and on a daily and weekly basis it will send you summaries intended to help you discover patterns and make healthier eating choices. There’s also a social element: you can connect with Facebook friends who also use The Eatery, and they’ll rate your meal photos too, providing a sort of reality check on your own ratings.

It’s all wrapped up inside a user interface that’s on the far slick-and-elegant end of the design spectrum. Noticeably absent: any way of quantifying what you’re eating, in terms of ounces, calories, or fat or carbohydrate content. “There are a bunch of apps in the App Store that are more about recording what you ate rather than helping you eat better,” says Massive Health CEO Sutha Kamal. “They are asking the wrong question. What you really should care about is how you are eating day to day or month to month.” The idea, Kamal says, is that simply paying more attention to what you’re eating and getting feedback from friends will prompt you to start eating better.

When Massive Health came out of stealth mode back in February, the team of ex-Mozilla, ex-Linden Lab, ex-gaming entrepreneurs declared that they wanted to bring great user-centered interaction design to the healthcare sector. They said they intended to build mobile apps that used crowdsourcing, game mechanics, social networking, and data analytics to help people deal with chronic health conditions.

True to that promise, Kamal says the startup is developing a diabetes app that’s still in alpha testing. But the company decided to bring out The Eatery first, as a way to get something into consumers’ hands faster and start testing its thesis that health apps will have more uptake and impact if they deliver what Kamal calls “delightful experiences.” With some pride, he describes The Eatery as “the most beautiful app in the Health part of the App Store…you don’t feel like there is a lot of work being done on your part, but a huge amount of value is being delivered.”

The startup isn’t planning to make any money on The Eatery, Kamal says. In fact, it’s presenting the app as “Massive Health Experiment 01″ rather than a full-fledged product. “This is a place where we are expecting to learn a lot,” Kamal says. The revenue opportunities will come down the road, when MassiveHealth introduces apps that help employers, insurers, and patients lower healthcare costs, he says.

In a phone chat yesterday with Kamal, I asked where the idea for The Eatery came from, how he thinks it will fit with existing social and mobile usage patterns, and where MassiveHealth is going from here. A summary of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: What’s the big idea behind The Eatery?

Sutha Kamal: If you step back and think about Massive Health as a macro thing, what we’re trying to do is build a lot of enduring value around helping people change their lives and stay healthy. We have another alpha [product] going in the diabetes space, and we have concluded that if you are thinking about getting and staying healthy, you care about four things: diet, exercise, medication adherence, and lastly the idiosyncracies of your condition—whether it’s testing your glucose level more consistently if you’re diabetic or watching your blood pressure if you have hypertension. But we really wanted to learn faster and ship software to a broader set of people. We were getting requests like, ‘Hey, I’m not diabetic but can I go play with your software?’

Eating is probably the most important of the four axes when it comes to getting and staying healthy. We asked, is there anything good in the eating world to help you, and the conclusion was there is not. There are a bunch of apps in the App Store that are more about recording what you ate rather than helping you eat better. They are asking the wrong question. You might say ‘I’m having a burrito’ but you don’t have good data on what’s in it. Or it might be brilliant at taking a picture of a barcode, but here’s a pro tip: if you are trying to eat better, don’t eat stuff with bar codes. If what I really care about is helping people eat better over a prolonged period, I don’t necessarily care about any specific meal. What I really care about is how you are eating day to day and month to month.

The Eatery represents a bunch of hypotheses we have about making delightful experiences. I can get up in the morning and grab my BlackBerry or iPhone and it makes me smile. I can get out of the shower and put on my beautiful watch. I can go into my garage and get in my car and it makes a rumbling growl that gives me a moment of delight. There is nothing in health that does that. So let’s rethink how we do food tracking. Let’s build something where all you have to do is pull your phone out of your pocket, take a picture, and say how healthy it is. And we give you access to the people you care about, so that your friends can rate your meals and you can see what they’re eating. The thesis is that you could build something really delightful that tightens the feedback loops that we talk about so often. We’re going to test a bunch of these hypotheses really quickly so that we can learn from people without having to wait until we have the diabetes app perfect.

X: You’re portraying The Eatery as an experiment. Does that mean you might turn it off at some point?

SK: From the gist of the conversation we have seen already, we know we are not going to turn it off. Are we going to get some of the interactions wrong? Absolutely. But this is a place where we are expecting to learn a lot. There are some ideas that we think are going to be awesome, and some ideas that we will be surprised by.

X: You guys do talk a lot about “tight feedback loops.” What is the loop that you’re trying to reinforce in this case?

SK: When you start to write things down, your awareness increases dramatically. When you have an app like this, which makes [meal tracking] even simpler than writing things down, it makes awareness easier, and it also helps you discover patterns and trends that you wouldn’t have discovered. That’s fundamentally something you didn’t have an app for before. You might get an insight as specific as, whenever you eat lunch later in the day, you tend to eat unhealthier food

X: Are users supposed to discover those patterns for themselves in the summaries, or are you doing some additional analysis for them?

SK: Bits of both. We do these rollups at the end of your first day, your first week, where we gather the information into this beautiful, fancy experience where it says, “Here is what happened this week.” There are also times when we want to go a step further and give more analysis behind it. People may be saying good things about what you have eaten, or they may show you that you were a little weaker this week.

X: With your rating system, you’re relying on people to guess at how healthy their own meals or other people’s meals are. That seems pretty unscientific. Say there’s someone who thinks microwave popcorn is actually a healthy snack, when it’s usually covered with butter and salt. How would you correct for that?

SK: There are two goals for us. One is that we want people’s ratings to be trending upward [meaning they're eating more healthily]. At the same time we want them to be getting better [at accurately rating their food]. There will be people who have ratings all over the place, but the magic behind the scenes will be figuring out what the ratings ought to be and gently nudging them toward that. For example, we joke around the office about the amount of Red Bull and caffeine I consume from week to week. It’s a non-trivial amount. I’m like, “This is healthy, it’s just caffeine” and everyone at the office has a much different view. So I get this weekly analysis that says, “Here are your worst meals.” You may believe that Red Bull is good for you, but maybe you’re not right.

X: In the Twitter world, tweeting about what you’re having for breakfast is almost the cliché, textbook definition of oversharing. What makes you think that people want to share pictures of every meal they eat?

SK: When you use the Twitter example, you are talking about a wide-open platform where I can say anything I want, profound or inane, and why would you care about my inane remarks? But if I am trying to eat healthier and I want my friends to help me—if I am 25 pounds overweight and I say, “Wade, I would love it if you could keep me honest and you have full rights to heckle me if I don’t eat better and support me if I do”—you will probably want to help. The funny thing is, we see people chiding one another about what they are eating even on the first day that the app is out.

X: There are other apps like Foodspotting that prompt people to photograph their food. Do you think that’s a natural thing to do? Are people getting used to the idea of pulling out their phones and taking a picture of every meal before they eat?

SK: If you look at normal people, they don’t do that—if they’re at dinner at a nice restaurant with a beautiful meal they won’t pull out a phone and take a picture. I think people are just fine not using any apps, so if the question is whether there is contention for that space, I don’t think so. But the other question you raise that’s interesting is, is there a social barrier to pulling out your phone at a meal? One of the things we’re proud of is that our app launches even faster than the native camera app in the iPhone. We’re going to get you right in there, take a picture, have it rated, and get the phone back in your pocket in five seconds. We set that target because we realized that unless it’s really fast it’s going to be kind of awkward.

X: Will you look for ways to make money on The Eatery, and if not, where do the revenue opportunities lie for Massive Health?

SK: We are not looking to monetize “Experiment 01.” It’s definitely just getting started, and some crazy stuff is going to drop in the next few weeks that we are really excited about. Next after that, we are building some great software for people with diabetes, and we are going to ship some other experiments, and we are going to build some great software across a range of cases.

In terms of the revenue model for the company, right now we think there are a couple of interesting things happening. We think that among insurers and employers and national healthcare systems and all of the folks who have ended up having to foot the bill for healthcare there is a lot of interest in a system that can effectively reduce those costs. Not a week goes by that we don’t have a phone call from someone in pharma or insurance who wants to talk to us. Even more interestingly, people are being incentivized in their own wallets to take care of their own health as well. In the next three to five years, I think there is going to be a really interesting play in the consumer space, about products that are helpful and meaningful and delightful. We think the hard part isn’t revenue, the hard part is really building those experiences that people are going to love.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.